How does healthy economy affect union activity? Organizing employees can be easier task when times are good

The Outlook

September 20, 1998|By Christine Henry

The recent surge in walkouts -- at Northwest Airlines, General Motors, U S West and Bell Atlantic -- has inspired talk of a resurgence in organized labor, even as union membership has remained largely stagnant. Is the spate of recent strikes just the tip of the iceberg? How does the strong economy affect labor's efforts to attract new members?

Patrick L. Vaccaro

Jackson, Lewis, Schnitzler & Krupman, an employment-law firm in White Plains, N.Y.

Clearly there is now more of an interest in organizing and there's more top-down support from [AFL-CIO President John] Sweeney and his people. Whether that translates into more interest in unions, I can't say.

It does mean that employers who have been asleep at the switch over the last 10 years because of lack of union activity have to start thinking more about the threat of unions. A lot of them have taken it for granted, and it does present a threat. I think they've been lulled into a false sense of security.

There are some companies that are targets for organizations, but most organizing starts from within, where legitimate employee needs are ignored or not sufficiently taken care of and employees seek outside assistance.

When the economy is strong, it makes it easier for unions to gain power -- a lot easier. Employees are less concerned about employer reaction to organizing activity. They have more flexibility, more leeway to find another position. When the economy is not good and every job is precious, employees might think twice about saying to an employer, "I want a union."

Patrick Cleary

Vice president for human resources policy, National Association of Manufacturers

When you disaggregate the strikes and look at them, GM came out of the difference of opinion surrounding the Flint plant. The Northwest strike has roots in the buyout three or four years ago. Then all the Communication Workers of America contracts from the Bell breakup expired at the same time.

Strike activity has been on the decline, and my sense is that it will continue to decline. None of these disputes had a common theme, there's been no change in the national zeitgeist. Each case rises and falls on its own merits.

What I have observed over the last year is that labor's biggest problem is structural. Look at where the jobs are being created. They're all in the places you'd suspect -- banking, computer programming -- largely in occupations where labor has no penetration and historically has not had success in organizing.

When you look at the geographic regions where jobs are being created, it's the same thing, in the Sun Belt cities of the South and West where labor also has been historically low. It's cultural.

Richard Block

Professor of labor and industrial relations, Michigan State University

What we've seen is a substantial reduction in the unionization rate in the past 40 years. It's gone from 33 percent in 1955 to 12 percent now, and only 10 percent in the private sector. That's partly due to employment changes and partly due to strong management opposition to unions.

Unions are attempting to play a little bit of catch-up. Through the '80s and early '90s companies attempted to make the case to unions that they had to take reductions in wages because of competitive pressures, and companies were claiming they were not doing as well as they'd like to do. Now with the growth in the economy, companies can not make that case. Unions are turning that argument around on the companies. To some extent that's what you saw in the Northwest strike.

It's probably fair to say that for the first third of the 20th century, the economy made a difference to unions. They grew in good times, but that has not been the case for 50 years. They're now driven by legal rules. The unionization process in the U.S., at least in the private sector, is a unit-by-unit, workplace-by-workplace decision as to whether employees want to represented by a union. It's not clear that they would make that decision based on the overall economy. Rather, they would make that decision based on the extent to which they believe a union can make their employment situation better than it is.

Bob Kellner

Chairman of employment law practice group, Gordon, Feinblatt, Rothman, Hoffberger & Hollander, Baltimore

In some circumstances a strong economy helps unions and in some circumstances it hurts them. I think it gives unions more power at the bargaining table when the labor market is tight and the economy is strong. If you've got a company that's already organized and most of their competitors are organized, it may give unions leverage during negotiations. I don't think a strong economy helps them organize new members.

The key issues for unions right now are job security and benefits. Right now there's a lot of employment, but people realize the economy goes up and down. They're worried about long-term security and they're concerned about employee benefits, both retirement benefits as well as health and other benefits. Some industries are concerned about overtime, and employees and employers are struggling to accommodate the changing work force with both parents working and one-parent families.

Pub Date: 9/20/98

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